What would you ask Michael Pollan?

On Thursday I'll interview Michael Pollan about his latest book, "In Defense of Food," at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theater. The discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A (via cards, not an open mic) and a book signing by Pollan. Tickets are still available, and it's for a good cause—a fundraiser for Slow Food Solano and the Solano County Library Foundation—so if you live in the Bay Area, consider making the hourlong trek up.

I'm assuming lots more Ethicurean readers have now finished "In Defense of Food" (review), so if you have any unresolved questions that you would like me to ask him, please leave your suggestions in the comments. (There were some terrific lines of inquiry offered when I first posted about the event.) Also, I know Pollan's been all over the papers and airwaves for the past month, so if there's anything you're simply sick of hearing him talk about, I'm interested in that too. Among the topics I intend to raise are cloning, genetically modified food, and leadership of this "movement" and whether it can scale.

33 Responsesto “What would you ask Michael Pollan?”

  1. I'd like to ask him what a few supply chain management professors are all over me about on a recent post I made related to the benefits of eating local/organic. How do we feed the world without industrialized agriclture (with only sustainable methods)? Or is the answer that we cannot?

    And if you don't want to ask Pollan that, but if you or any readers have some opinions you'd like to share on my blog, please visit:
    http://imperfectmommy.com/?p=356

  2. ExPat Chef says:

    How about a reaction to the "elitist" negativity that eating local gets charged with? Access to better food for all is something that needs to be addressed as we make an important shift in our food system.

  3. Sarah says:

    What kind of social movement will we need to take on the massive and politically powerful food industry? What steps will it need to take? I'm thinking of building on ideas like the pay-what-you-can cafeterias in Sao Paolo (written about in Frances Moore Lappe & Anna Lappe's 'Hope's Edge') or school gardening programs... how can we get creative about making good food affordable in the face of Big Food?

  4. Tom K says:

    Ask him if it isn't a little condescending to ask people to "pay more and eat less" as the country enters a recession. How about just shop for produce at Aldi instead?

    Tom

  5. Jack says:

    "Ask him if it isn’t a little condescending to ask people to “pay more and eat less” as the country enters a recession."

    I think this is ridiculous. We have the cheapest food of any major country in the world. Almost all food is discounted, due to government subsidies and no charge/responsibility for pollution from the ag/food industries. When food triples in price, then you can whine.

  6. Justin Marx says:

    When's the next book coming out? I thought there was nothing left to say after the Omnivore's Dilemma. But In Defense of Food was fantastic.

  7. Napavore says:

    Of his "rules" for escaping the western diet, where should people with a truly low income start?

    (Personal background: As a social-worker working with youth coming out of the foster care system (ages 16-24), they eat like most teens--fast food wherever they can get it--and generally do not have any compelling reason, the exposure/skills to good home-cooked meals, nor the cash to afford to eat locally, in season or organically. It's hard enough to get them to want to cook for themselves...let alone pay attention to ingredients...)

  8. Greg says:

    I'm going to be there (from Davis), so it would be great to hear my question asked "live"!

    I would ask - For a book so against nutritionism, why is there such a strong focus on Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid content (and a nutritionism-like accounting of them) in the book?

    Thanks and good luck!

    Greg

  9. Ask him about policy. Ask him why he doesn't talk about policy more, and press him on the importance of farm and food policy change.

  10. Ariane says:

    In "The Omnivore's Dilemma" Pollan basically says that the problems with our food system are due to policies that support, among other things, the production of 'cheap' corn. The solution he gives basically is to vote with your fork and deal with the problems by buying good food. Where are his policy solutions?

    I volunteered at a Just Food event in New York City where he said that he would work "around" agribusiness and policies. If we do that, and work around the cause of a lot of the problems instead of engaging that cause, then we continue to do what the movement has so far accomplished with flying colors: being a fringe movement limited to 'erosion at the edges' and small, even if necessary, change.

    Where the answers might not solely lie in farm (and food) policy reform, we cannot ignore or work around these large, influential, and hugely problematic policies. Does he expect that we can change the food and farm system without dealing with food and farm policy?

  11. batchild says:

    Would Mr. Pollan be ok with a massive organized effort to get him on Oprah?

  12. Jennifer says:

    I'd ask him something about eating native foods -- not just local farmer-grown foods but 'wild' foods like berries and mushrooms and ferns. I'm not sure what the question is... Maybe, is there any hope that it will ever be more than an extremely fringe activity?

  13. pattie says:

    Would you please ask him if he is tired? And if so, how does he work through it and persevere on his mission? I know that sounds simplistic, but it's not. Many of us feel tired of constantly fighting uphill. I know we are close to major breakthroughs on issues relating to our broken food system here in the United States, but the desire to give up and retreat to my garden is great.

  14. I am writing from the a little tiny island just off the coast of France but belonging to the UK called Alderney.
    I have not read the book but from your excellent blog which I follow I think I can ask a simple question.
    Would he agree that food labeled and sold as being Certificated Organic by a Recognized Certification Body is the only sure way that food sold by any retailer can be "guaranteed" organic? [allowing for the fact that you can't guarantee anything in this life]
    See here some Organic Certificating bodies.
    http://www.organicassistant.com/organisations/certificators.php
    Alderney - where I live - its doesn't always look like this!!!!! as its blowing a Force 9 severe gale at the moment.
    http://www.alderney.gov.gg/

  15. Bonnie P. says:

    Wow, thanks everybody. These are great questions. Some comments, in no particular order:

    Batchild, he should go on Oprah; he was supposed to be on Stephen Colbert but canceled because of the writers' strike.

    Rural Populist and Ariane, I will certainly ask him about policy — he almost always talks about the importance of voting with one's votes, not just one's fork when he speaks in public, but I think he's more uncomfortable telling people how to vote with the former than the latter.

    Imperfect Mommy (great pseudonym, by the way): that's the question we most need a good answer to.

    Tom K, that's a funny question coming from someone who represents the produce industry: don't your people support the "pay more for quality" concept.

  16. Christina says:

    Perhaps I'm too late to ask a question, but I listened to the interview NPR had with Pollan and I recall him talking about the price of organic (or free-range) is the accurate price; the price of factory-meat, for instance, is not what the price tags says --- it's much higher when you add environmental issues, health issues etc. However, our society is so focused on low prices and how to buy more it doesn't seem to matter where things come from or how they are produced. It's like we've been brainwashed into not thinking. I wonder what is says about us -- as human beings - when we constantly are hunting for "cheap" and not quality? Philosophically, wouldn't that make us cheap as well.

  17. Kim says:

    I'd like to second Imperfect Mommy's question. Everytime I start talking about this stuff, people act like I intend to starve the entire continent of Africa and honestly, I have no idea how to respond!

  18. Tom K says:

    This is off topic. But I have a poll on my blog that asks this question:

    Apart from any benefit to the environment, do you think research will show that organic fruits and vegetables are of higher nutritional value than conventional produce?

    So far, it's a whitewash. Everyone who has voted believes research shows or will show that organic produce has no more nutritional value than conventional produce. I thought I would throw the poll open to this blog and see if the results are the same.

    Vote here, if you want:

    http://freshtalk.blogspot.com/

    Tom K

  19. Rebecca H. says:

    I want to know why he wasn't brave enough to keep the catch phrase to "Eat food." ("Not too much" and "Mostly plants" are extra and get in the way.)

    There's evidence that "not too much" is unnecessary if one follows the first bit of advice: "eat food." When the metabolism isn't overstimulated by highly refined "foods" and a person is getting enough nutrition from real food, the body regulates the appetite without a problem. (In my experience working with clients as an herbalist, portion sizes tend to normalize on their own after modern, industrial "food substitutes" are removed from the diet.)

    The "mostly plants" part is based on exactly the kind of speculative epidemiology that Pollan decries. He does acknowledge that healthy populations of humans exist on a very wide variety of traditional diets. I would remind him that some of these diets contain almost no plants. (And again, in my experience working with clients as an herbalist, I have found that some people do very well on a diet that is "mostly plants" and some do not.) The phrase "mostly plants" gets in the way of his book's basic conceit -- that we should get away from nutritionism and eat real food.

  20. Wollstonecraft says:

    Many of the questions being asked here Pollan has covered or touched on. Scour the Internet for written and audio articles and interviews, you’ll find many of the answers to the above questions.

    Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but Pollan is essentially dropping out of the “movement.” You should look elsewhere for a leader, he doesn’t want to be “that guy.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/09/FD3CU6AUG.DTL
    -------
    "My wife says it's time for me to move on," the UC Berkeley journalism professor and reluctant leader of the real food movement told The Chronicle.

    Emerging as a food movement leader "makes me uncomfortable. I'm a journalist," Pollan says.

    "My first obligation is to my own interests, and curiosity, and to my readers. Becoming part of a movement - that's not why I got into writing."
    -------

  21. And Kim, I'll add this... whenever I get in this conversation with people and the first thing out of their mouths is related to "how are we going to feed the world," I always have to laugh b/c they are generally ultra conservative people who could care less about starving people in their own neighborhoods -- and make negative comments about welfare Moms and people on foodstamps.

    Let's just cut to the chase... we all know the reason they want to maintain the industrialized agriculture system and not decentralize our food production systems. I know one of the family owners of one of our largest privately held industrialized food manufacturers -- and I have seen one of her many houses and several of their cars from their classic car collection. I'll just say that it is not your typical farmer's dwelling. There is no money to be made in decentralized, non-industrialized farming.

    And to comment on Pollan not wanting to be part of the movement ... I think sometimes social movements converge around a person or a book at the perfect time. And sometimes you become part of it whether you are prepared or not. I can understand why he feels the way he does, but I hate to tell him that he might not have a choice. Sometimes the movement is more powerful than any one of us can imagine -- and if that's the case, I am really excited for what's to come.

  22. Linda says:

    Saw this 2008 book at a gathering (political)...I wonder if Pollan, or others who read this blog, have thoughts about it --
    Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty,
    by Mark Winne. It appears to address questions raised by others who've commented (feeding the world), and looks really closely at the economics of the local, sustainable movement based upon his efforts and experiences with the Hartford food bank. Tag line: The poor get diabetes, the rich get local and organic...

  23. ExPat Chef says:

    Ah, how about a continuation of his "Botany" line of thought and track the decline in diversity of food plants and animals that would be interesting and very critical.

  24. Amanda Rose says:

    Greg from Davis: I may have one or two tickets to the event. If it's two, it's because I won't be going myself which means I need to give them to someone in Davis since that's where I am now. Email me through my bio page here if you are interested. They are very good seats:

    http://www.ethicurean.com/amanda

  25. Stefan says:

    One of the most intriguing arguments about the risks of feedlots is Pollan's linking of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and grain fed cattle. I would like to know more about how strong the science is behind this assertion.

  26. Matt S. says:

    As Wollstonecraft notes, most of these questions Pollan gets asked pretty regularly, so you can find his answers to them by scouring the internet. Not that they shouldn't be asked again at a public forum, so more people can hear his answers, but those who can't make it can still hear what he thinks.

    But two specific points:
    (1) It's a little unfair to say Pollan doesn't address the systemic/political side of all this, as seems to be a common perception. He's been more vocal than just about anyone (at least anyone with his level of exposure) about the role played by the Farm Bill -- which he's recommended renaming the Food Bill -- and the need for it to undergo massive change. His talk of working "around" agribusiness has to be understood in light of that. Agribusiness and the Farm Bill aren't going to change any time soon, so in the meantime, we need to do what we can that works around them. We also need to pester our legislators to change the institutional framework of food production that currently favors big agribusiness, but in the meantime, we do what we can.

    (2) The elitism issue is a red herring. Unequal access to good food is hardly *caused* by the local food movement, and it makes little sense to say that those of us who can eat local shouldn't until everyone can. There are still a lot of concrete goods for a lot of people (and non-people: farm animals, the environment) that come from eating locally. That there is inequality in the system hardly makes it a bad thing for those of us who can eat local to do so. We ought, of course, to support whatever political movements we can that try to address the basic inequalities in our society, and to the extent that we think food is really important, we should maybe direct a little extra energy at that particular issue. But there's already a lot of overlap between the local food folks and the community activists, at least in my part of the world. Locavores aren't just a bunch of effete gourmets with bellies full of sunchoke and lamb, raising a toast to their superior position in the world

  27. Matt S. says:

    Here's one good recent online interview: http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2006/05/31/roberts/

    The "mostly plants" issue comes up, as do others.

  28. Emily H. says:

    I just read the article Steve linked to (third post). Wow. Who the hell is this guy, and how do we get rid of him? Unbelievable and depressing.

  29. Chris in Berkeley says:

    Pollan, If you could ask one question to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during a primary debate concerning our food industry, what would that question be?

    Pollan, If you could have a Presidential candidate PLEDGE one change concerning our food industry, what would it be?

  30. Saara says:

    The elitism issue is truly a red herring. Here in our community the small local farmers (same ones that we get our 'sunchokes and lamb' from) are the ones giving to the food banks and setting up the farm-to-school lunch programs. I haven't seen anything come from corporate farms and not much besides highly-processed boxed stuff from corporate groceries.

  31. Leslie says:

    Erk--I haven't read the book yet, but I'm curious about the steer he bought while writing The Omnivore's Dillemma--did he sell it to some big agribiz? Did he turn a profit? I wouldn't expect you to ask him--there are so many other great questions that are infinitely more important, but does anybody know?

    I second Chris in Berkeley's questions regarding the candidates, though I'm guessing he'd ask Hillary the same question we'd all like to ask: WTF were you thinking aligning yourself w/Joy Philippi?

    Also--kudos to Emily H. for making it through that Urban Turban piece--I was so offended by the first couple lines that I couldn't do it.

  32. The answers to Leslie's questions in #32 can be found in Pollan's Power Steer in the New York Times. His steer went all the way through the industrial meat system, ending his life in Kansas. As for the financial calculations, Pollan wrote:

    Unless the cattle market collapses between now and June (always a worry these days), I stand to make a modest profit on No. 534. In February, the feedlot took a sonogram of his rib eye and ran the data through a computer program. The projections are encouraging: a live slaughter weight of 1,250, a carcass weight of 787 pounds and a grade at the upper end of choice, making him eligible to be sold at a premium as Certified Angus Beef. Based on the June futures price, No. 534 should be worth $944. (Should he grade prime, that would add another $75.)

    I paid $598 for No. 534 in November; his living expenses since then come to $61 on the ranch and $258 for 160 days at the feedlot (including implant), for a total investment of $917, leaving a profit of $27. It's a razor-thin margin, and it could easily vanish should the price of corn rise or No. 534 fail to make the predicted weight or grade -- say, if he gets sick and goes off his feed. Without the corn, without the antibiotics, without the hormone implant, my brief career as a cattleman would end in failure.

    Michael Pollan was on KQED Radio's Forum call-in program the other day. His comments are interesting and some of the questions are too. The full program can be streamed or downloaded as an MP3 file.